Life in the shadow of Russian "Iskanders"

Author : "New Journal of Zurich" Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Source : Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Strong security measures are mixed with pragmatism at the border between Lithuania and Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave
23:24, 28 August 2018

Open source

"Lithuania! 100 years of its proclamation of independence!" says a banner, painted with the national flag colors at the entrance to the town of Vištytis, located in the triangle between Lithuania, Russia, and Poland. In the 20th century, Lithuania has experienced a lot of violence, primarily from the German and Russian sides. In 1991, Lithuania has become independent again; however, Russia is only 20 meters away from Vištytis. 400 residents of Vištytis are watching the formidable lights of the Kaliningrad enclave. In February, Lithuanians found Russian Iskander missiles, which can be equipped with nuclear warheads, in  Chernyakhovsk, located 60 km to the west. Of course, they are not visible from Vištytis, but the awareness of the military potential and the historical experience of communication with Russia is enough for the inhabitants to be scared.

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Russia does not play any role in the daily life of Vištytis. There is no border crossing, and the Russian border crossing point is hidden behind a high fence. Due to the proximity of the border, swimming in the Vištytis Lake is allowed only near the town. Buoys mark the Russian border, and the signs on the shore warn against accidental crossing of the border. Apparently, it will require a long bureaucratic design, but it is not dangerous.

If you go further towards Kybartai, the road comes close to the border with Kaliningrad, which Lithuania recently fortified on its side with a two-meter fence with barbed wire. The construction of this fence began in 2017 and was completed in six months, and by 2020 it should be fully equipped with CCTV cameras. According to official data, it is a matter of protection against smugglers and migrants. At the same time, in the face of a tense geopolitical situation, Vilnius also wants to give Lithuanians a sense of security.

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Since the aggression of Russia in the east of Ukraine in 2014, the country is deeply distrustful of Russia, fueled by Putin's verbal threats against various Baltic countries. Therefore, 1,000 NATO soldiers have deployed in Lithuania. Russia is constantly trying to discredit them. For example, fake news about the Rukla NATO military base spreads among Lithuanians. In February 2017, a NATO soldier allegedly raped an underage Lithuanian girl. Such information was distributed in e-mails from Russia, which then were actively used by the Russian sites. And recently information about a serious accident was spread, allegedly provoked by NATO armored personnel carrier. Both reports were immediately refuted. In both cases, it is obviously a question of the Russian misinformation campaign.

Therefore, security measures are tough in the border area. The author was stopped for verification near Kybartai (Kaliningrad is located about a kilometer to the west), two Lithuanian border guards asked to show the documents, then long telephone checks began. Young border guards are friendly, although they say on point. One of them said goodbye in Polish, however they spoke Russian before. There is also border control in the opposite direction.

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In the north-east of Kaliningrad the border is formed by the Neman river. Here, both Lithuania and Russia so far refrain from fences with barbed wire. The river flows towards the Baltic Sea, and it all is allowed to swim before dark, says a resident of Sovetsk (formerly Tilsit). Only with the onset of darkness it is recommended to refrain from walking along the embankment because of Russian checks. "When the water level is low, you can go to Lithuania," says the man.

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Here, bilateral relations are more pragmatic than at the national level. In 2017, the Lithuanian government provided almost 20 million francs for the cooperation with the border territories in Kaliningrad. The funds are directed, among other things, to the Lithuanian minority communities or to Lithuanian monuments. Sovetsk City Museum has benefited from this, it has provided a hall for Lithuanian exchange projects. And the tourist brochures printed in Lithuania are oriented to tourists on both sides of the Neman. But only a few tourists from Lithuania find their way to Sovetsk, which connects the old steel bridge with Lithuania.

Still, 1000 members of the Lithuanian minority live in Sovetsk, and 9 800 people, or 1% of the population reside in all Kaliningrad. Although there are no Lithuanian schools here, Moscow allows Lithuanian lessons in some schools. In recent years, according to the Ministry of Education, in Vilnius it has become more difficult to obtain a work permit for seconded teaching staff. Lately, there have been many refusals on the visa. Geopolitical difficulties now lie also on the shoulders of the Lithuanian minority.

Paul Flückiger

Read the original text at Neue Zürcher Zeitung

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or 112.International and its owners.

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